25 Athletes Who Came Out of Nowhere This Year

Grant Suneson, Michael B. Sauter and John Harrington
24/7 Wall St.

Some things are certain in sports. LeBron James, Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Trout, and Aaron are among the best in their respective leagues and will likely continue to dominate as long as they are healthy. But so much of pro sports is far from certain.

Sure, top draft picks and highly-paid players are more likely to be among the best, but other athletes who have spent seasons in the minor leagues, undrafted or unwanted, can suddenly become elite player.

There’s no set formula for athletes suddenly changing their fortunes. Some players fit better into certain coaching schemes. Others may benefit from good chemistry with a teammate. Some players may have just needed a change of scenery.

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Maybe it’s a new training regimen, good luck charm, or any combination of other factors that boost a player’s stats. Some have recovered from a nagging injury that had prevented them from performing at their top skill level.

Some professional athletes shine right away, even though they weren’t highly touted coming out of college or high school. Each year, teams hope to be one of the lucky few to find diamonds in the rough who can make an immediate impact in the pros. Some of the players on this list were drafted in later rounds -- or went undrafted -- and yet play like top-10 picks.

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Marquise Goodwin never put up big numbers during his four-year tenure as a Buffalo Bill. But once he made it to San Francisco, his whole career turned around. Goodwin has 897 yards and 51 catches so far in 2017, more than in his previous four seasons combined.

For other players, a team change is not always necessary -- things can just take a while to click. Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart never hit above .260 in his first five full seasons. But in 2017, he hit .297 and tallied a career high 24 home runs. That production earned him a three-year, $38 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge was not exactly an unknown, but he was also far from the team’s most talked-about young player heading into the 2017 season. However, as a rookie, Judge set the major league record for most home runs by a rookie and is now a central part of the Yankees hopes for the future and one of the most recognizable names in baseball.


The 25 players on this list are athletes in one of the four most-watched leagues in the United States -- the NHL, the NBA, the MLB, and the NFL. The players who made this list meaningfully outperformed their previous professional seasons, or, if they are rookies, meaningfully outperformed their draft positions.

1. A.J. Bouye
> Position: Cornerback
> League: NFL
> Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars own the best pass defense in the NFL this season, and A.J. Bouye is a big reason why. The cornerback has six interceptions this season, good for second in the NFL and the same number he had throughout his first four seasons in Houston combined.

2. Aaron Dell
> Position: Goalie
> League: NHL
> Team: San Jose Sharks

The position of NHL goalie can be highly unpredictable. Some of the best goalies this year are elite tenders who have accumulated years of experience and have been playing in the NHL for over a decade -- players like Roberto Luongo and Henrik Lundqvist. Then there are players like the current league leader in save percentage and goals allowed average -- the Sharks’ Aaron Dell. An undrafted 28-year-old, Dell is playing in his second season as a backup to Martin Jones, who has been struggling of late. He may not be spending much longer as a backup.

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3. Aaron Judge
> Position: Outfield
> League: MLB
> Team: New York Yankees

Expectations were high for the 6'7", 282-pound New York Yankees right-fielder, and he exceeded them in 2017. Aaron Judge, the face of the so-called Baby Bombers, hit 52 home runs to set a Major League Baseball rookie record. He also drove in 114 runs and batted .284 to help the Yankees reach the American League Championship Series.

4. Alex Wood
> Position: Starting pitcher
> League: MLB
> Team: Los Angeles Dodgers

Prior to 2017, Alex Wood was not even a .500 pitcher in the big leagues, pitching first for the Atlanta Braves and then for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But everything changed for the 6'4", 195-pound lefthander in 2017. With a 16-3 record -- 151 strikeouts in 152 innings -- he was a big reason why the Dodgers reached the World Series for the first time in 29 years.

5. Alvin Kamara
> Position: Running back
> League: NFL
> Team: New Orleans Saints

The rookie running back out of the University of Tennessee has proved to be a dual threat for the New Orleans Saints in 2017. A fine complement to running back Mark Ingram and quarterback Drew Brees, Kamara has gained 652 yards on the ground and leads the NFL in yards per carry with 6.59. He has also caught 68 passes for 684 yards.

6. Anders Lee
> Position: Left wing
> League: NHL
> Team: New York Islanders

The Islanders have had a rough season and are about to end the failed experiment of calling Barclays Center home. One bright spot has been 6’3” winger Anders Lee, who is a point per game player and is tied for third in the league in goals scored. In his fifth season in the NHL, Lee is well on his way to blowing his previous season highs for points and goals scored out of the water.

7. Blake Bortles
> Position: Quarterback
> League: NFL
> Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

Blake Bortles was widely considered to be a bust after being drafted third overall in 2014, but he’s drastically improved his play in 2017. After throwing at least 16 interception in the three previous years, Bortles threw just eight this season. He’s also improved his completion percentage, leading the Jaguars to a surprising playoff berth.

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8. Brock Boeser
> Position: Right wing
> League: NHL
> Team: Vancouver Canucks

Outside of the top 10 picks, the NHL draft is a bit of a roll of the dice, even in the first round. The Canucks came up big with their 23rd overall pick in the 2015 draft with right wing Brock Boeser. Boeser played primarily at the University of North Dakota last year, but he has been dominant in his first full season with the Canucks. He is fifth in the league in goals scored, with 19 in 33 games. Boeser also leads the team in points.

9. Case Keenum
> Position: Quarterback
> League: NFL
> Team: Minnesota Vikings

Ever since leaving the University of Houston, Case Keenum has been a journeyman quarterback, playing for four different teams. But it looks like he’s finally found a home in Minnesota. The Vikings looked to be in dire straits with their first two quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford, both sitting out with knee injuries. But Keenum has been a revelation in Minnesota, completing 67.9% of his passes and leading the Vikings to a 9-3 record as a starter.

10. Cody Bellinger
> Position: Outfield / First base
> League: MLB
> Team: Los Angeles Dodgers

Rookie Cody Bellinger split time between left field and first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bellinger made the most of his opportunity by hitting a National League rookie-record 38 home runs, driving in 97 runs, and batting .267. Bellinger helped the Dodgers reach the World Series and went on to win National League Rookie of the Year.

11. Corey Knebel
> Position: Relief pitcher
> League: MLB
> Team: Milwaukee Brewers

A reliable closer is a valuable commodity, and the Milwaukee Brewers have themselves a great one in Corey Knebel. The righty reliever dropped his ERA from 4.68 in 2016 to 1.78 in 2017 and nailed down 39 saves, earning his first ever All-Star Game appearance.

12. Donovan Mitchell
> Position: Shooting guard
> League: NBA
> Team: Utah Jazz

Somewhat forgotten in a stacked NBA draft class, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has really made a name for himself in his rookie season. Mitchell is averaging 17.7 points per game to go along with 3.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.5 steals. He’s been a key contributor in replacing Gordon Hayward, who left Utah in free agency.

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13. Joe Schobert
> Position: Linebacker
> League: NFL
> Team: Cleveland Browns

It may seem odd to include a Cleveland Brown on a list of good players given that the team has struggled so much in 2017, winning zero games. But Joe Schobert has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season. Schobert is tied for the NFL lead in tackles, and he forced three fumbles so far this season.

14. Jon Marchessault
> Position: Center
> League: NHL
> Team: Las Vegas Golden Knights

In 30 games this season, the Las Vegas Golden Knights center has scored 12 goals and posted 19 assists for 31 points to help boost the expansion NHL team to second place in the Pacific Division.

15. Justin Smoak
> Position: First base
> League: MLB
> Team: Toronto Blue Jays

After years of low batting averages, Justin Smoak finally hit his stride. The first baseman had a breakout season in 2017, slugging 38 home runs, driving in 90 runs, and hitting .270 for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was named to the American League All-Star team.

16. Kareem Hunt
> Position: Running back
> League: NFL
> Team: Kansas City Chiefs

Kareem Hunt has had a breakout season for the Kansas City Chiefs, who are poised to win back-to-back divisional titles for the first time in their history. Hunt is second in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,201. That’s pretty good for a rookie out of the University of Toledo who was the 86th overall pick in the 2017 draft.

17. Kevin Byard
> Position: Free safety
> League: NFL
> Team: Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans are still fighting for a spot in the playoffs, largely because of their defense. Kevin Byard has been a key piece of Tennessee’s secondary, intercepting six passes in a breakout sophomore season. In addition to the picks, Byard has also defended 14 passes.

18. Kyle Kuzma
> Position: Power forward
> League: NBA
> Team: Los Angeles Lakers

With all the hype surrounding new Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma was all but forgotten after being selected 27th in the draft. But Kuzma emerged as the best young Laker this season, while Ball has struggled. Kuzma is scoring 17.4 points per game while hitting 50.7% of his shots and 40.5% of his threes -- impressive for a big man.

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19. Marquise Goodwin
> Position: Wide receiver
> League: NFL
> Team: San Francisco

The rapidly improving San Francisco 49ers have been boosted by the development of wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. In the last three games, all won by the 49ers, the former Buffalo Bill has caught 24 passes for 319 yards. So far this season, Goodwin has snagged 51 passes for 897 yards, topping his career total for both categories -- combined.

20. Robbie Ray
> Position: Starting pitcher
> League: MLB
> Team: Arizona Diamondbacks

Robbie Ray was a struggling starting pitcher in his first seasons before hitting his stride in 2017. Ray went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA and led the majors in strikeouts per nine innings with 12.1, helping the Arizona Diamondbacks reach the National League Division Series.

21. Spencer Dinwiddie
> Position: Point guard
> League: NBA
> Team: Brooklyn Nets

Spencer Dinwiddie is one of few bright spots in an otherwise tough season for the Brooklyn Nets. The former University of Colorado standout is posting career high averages in points (12.4), assists (6.6), and rebounds (3.4) in the 2017-2018 season.

22. Tommy Pham
> Position: Outfield
> League: MLB
> Team: St. Louis Cardinals

Tommy Pham has been with the St. Louis Cardinals since 2014 and has gotten progressively more playing time. As a regular in 2017, Pham played in 128 games and hit .306, clubbed 23 home runs, and drove in 73 runs -- all career bests. He became the first player in the 126-year history of the Cardinals to bat better than .300, steal at least 20 bases, and hit at least 20 home runs.

23. Travis Shaw
> Position: Third base
> League: MLB
> Team: Milwaukee Brewers

After leaving the Boston Red Sox and joining the Milwaukee Brewers, Travis Shaw enjoyed the best year of his career, batting .273, hitting 31 home runs, and driving in 101 runs -- all career highs. Shaw’s contract runs through 2022, so the Brewers will look forward to his production for years to come.

24. Yannick Ngakoue
> Position: Defensive end
> League: NFL
> Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

Thanks to a resurgent pass rush, the Jaguars have earned the nickname Sacksonville. Veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell is the team leader, but second year player Yannick Ngakoue made a name for himself by getting to the quarterback 11 times already in 2017.

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25. Zack Cozart
> Position: Shortstop
> League: MLB
> Team: Cincinnati Reds

The Cincinnati Reds have been blessed with great shortstops such as Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin, and Cozart was the latest to join that group. Cozart had career highs in homers (24), runs batted in (63), and batting average (.297), and he made the National League All-Star team for the first time. The Reds did not make a qualifying offer to Cozart after the 2017 season, and he was signed by the Los Angeles Angels.

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